Friday, September 18, 2009

God Enough for Me

Note: I began writing this shortly after last year’s Chicago Marathon. With this year’s race less than a month away…well, I figured it was time to finish.

God Enough for Me

In his book Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes tells of running more than 200 miles without stopping. Of this experience, he wrote, “The pain is the point.” When I first read that statement, I thought it was pretty cool. It made sense to me, at least on a cerebral level. After all, I’ve been through enough tough times in my life to apply my emotional suffering – and its subsequent catharsis – to Dean’s notion that the same holds true for physical pain.

This past Sunday, in running the Chicago Marathon, that cerebral knowledge became etched into who I am, rather than what I understand.

I’d taken on this marathon, my third, out of a vengeance against last year’s Chicago, which was canceled because of heat just as I had reached mile 16. But it began to take on a much more significant meaning when I decided to become an American Cancer Society Charity Runner. I’m tired of seeing people die too damn young from bodies that have turned against themselves. My wife’s cousin Barbara was married to one of these victims, Michael McLendon, who died in January.

Those who know me well may tell you that I am given to bouts of agnosticism and even downright atheism. For some reason, those bouts are balanced by moments when I feel so close to God that I feel as though I could reach out and touch him/her/it/them. Depending on who you talk to, I’m either schizoid, possessed by demons, or really onto something. I prefer to believe the latter of the three choices for reasons that need no explanation.

That said – and as a result of currently being in a decidedly non-agnostic frame of mind – I will tell you that one of the blessings of meeting my wife Anne is that I have gained an enormous new family that has welcomed me as if I were their own. I don’t have very much family of my own, so this was one hell of a freebie that God threw into the deal, pardoning my pun.

Anne’s father, Tom, has a sister in Texas, Joan, who along with a wonderful man named Jack Moore, gave birth to three of Anne’s many cousins: Scott, Debbie, and Barbara. I really love these people. To say that they are “salt of the earth” would do them all a great disservice, because it would belie the fact that among them all there exists a wonderful, ebullient, lively, creative, artistic and fun-loving vibe. They are originals. But to say that they are not “salt of the earth” would at the same time do them a great disservice because it would belie the deep and abiding spiritual strength and grace that I have seen so many of them exhibit.

So, to see that extended family lose Michael – who couldn’t have fit into that family any more closely had he been born into it – was not easy to bear. From the time I met him, I always wanted to “be like Mike.” He had so many of the qualities that I admire in a man, a father, a husband. Chief among those qualities was an incredible enthusiasm for life coupled with a quiet, deeply grounded calm and strength.

You see, I’ve got the enthusiasm part down. But I’m not so good about being grounded, nor calm, nor strong.

I hate the fact that I won’t get to know him any better than I did. So I asked the family if I could run the race in his honor. To my delight, they were delighted to have me do so. That felt good. We all kicked ass in the fundraising department, bringing in well over $5,000 for the ACS. That also felt good.

And so on race morning, I stood at the start line. Calm and determined. I had 76 donors on my side, and Michael’s name, as well as that of my Uncle Jim (who died of cancer a month before the race) and my Aunt Janet, who passed some 20 years ago from the same disease, ironed onto the front of my jersey.

I knew it would be another unseasonably warm day, but at the start line, it was still in the 60’s, with a nice breeze coming in off Lake Michigan. I knew the course would be littered with water and Gatorade stations, so I felt confident that even if the predicted high of 78 were reached, I would be fine. However, it reached a record high - 86 degrees – and turned the marathon into yet another brutal endurance test.

Nonetheless, my pace was strong and consistent through mile 20. I stayed to my gameplan, stayed well hydrated, and was looking at a sub-five hour marathon, which would have been a personal best. I felt strong.

Little did I know how irrelevant my goal of finishing in less than 5 hours would soon become.

I’ve always had a nervous stomach, as long back as I can remember. During the course of the first 21 miles, I’d taken in a whole lot of Gatorade…serving the dual purpose of hydration and providing calories. Those calories come in the form of sugars, and lots of them. One of the neat facts I learned about sugar – after the race – is that it does a very good (or bad, depending on your perspective) job of pushing waste thru your gut and into your waste disposal system.

All that to say that some “accelerated digestive locomotion” came into play.

Just about the time I got the idea in my head that I’d be able to run the last several miles without stopping, my guts sent a telegram to my brain, saying “Hey, thought you might like to know that the levee’s gonna break here in a few minutes.” I dismissed the queasiness, as I’d experienced it in my first marathon and never had anything come of it. However, as I approached the aid station at Mile 21, my guts set aside their genial formalities and put the small intestine on full alert. Great, massive, seizing cramps immediately put the whole race into jeopardy.

Fortunately, a row of portable johns was within yards. But, like the scared kid whistling in the dark, I walked past them and attempted to reach the next aid station. I didn’t make it. The “troops” began to advance and it was clear that there was no retreat. Thank God for the porta-john.

I emerged, grateful, and certain that the incident was an anomaly. Returning to the aid station, I came across a friend of mine (a high school principal whose students were manning that particular station). How odd it was that out of the millions of people in the city of Chicago, out of the thousands of volunteers, out of the 20+ aid stations, here would be someone – at that precise moment – with whom I had a bond. And although this was the first time we’d actually met face-to-face, it reassured me and heartened me to have that connection.

Later that night, at dinner, he would confess that “you didn’t look so good.”


Sidestep for a moment: Probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life is learning to accept and cope with Panic Disorder. For those of you who’ve ever had a panic attack, or suffered from the disorder that comes from repeated, prolonged exposure to panic attacks – you’ll know immediately that this situation was an enormous emotional challenge for me. For those of you who have not had a panic attack – try to imagine, if you can, being entirely certain that you are going to die. That is the insidious trick that panic plays on your mind. And although I have been treated for it for many years, and have learned to be almost entirely unafraid of panic attacks, there are certain times, certain situations – like ones where your body and mind are taxed to their absolute limits – that they still have tremendous power over me.

From the moment I knew that I was going to be sick – just before mile 21 – panic visited me immediately and attempted to assist in my body’s coup. This utter, complete, base fear comes straight from the adrenal cortex. Many psychiatrists agree that panic attacks result from the fight-or-flight response gone awry. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your bloodstream as if you were in a real emergency…but the damned thing is that there is no real emergency. As an example – think of how you feel when a car has pulled out right in front of you and you react quickly, instinctively, intuitively. You’re able to do that because of the fight-or-flight response. It really is amazing. But think about how you feel after you steer around that potentially deadly accident, get control of your car, and slowly realize that you’ve escaped. The adrenaline and cortisol begin to leave your bloodstream, your breathing begins to slow – but you likely feel shaky, bewildered, out-of-sorts. In panic attacks, the surge just won’t stop.

So there I was, leaving the aid station at mile 21, fighting those attacks, trying to forge ahead. But feeling an enormous sense of dread and fear.

After a few minutes of running, it was clear that the sickness in my guts was there to stay, at least for while. I stopped running and began walking. I seriously considered dropping out. The thought of Gatorade now made me sick to my stomach, so I grabbed a bottle of water from a gracious volunteer. Just to keep my mouth from drying out. I couldn’t really drink it, as every time I took a sip, the ferocious cramps came back.

I grabbed that bottle tight and held onto it for the rest of the race. It was my lifeline. And it acted like a stress ball in helping me find an outlet for my mounting fear and panic.

Within another mile, I reached “critical mass” again. I couldn’t imagine how I’d make it thru another four miles. I saw a police officer guarding an intersection. Sensing that I wasn’t well, he began to approach me. I pleaded with him to help me find a restroom. He pointed to a small travel agency just a few yards away. As I turned to dash to its door, I tripped on the curb and fell hands-first onto the sidewalk. Instantly, both of my legs seized in horrendous cramps. As I yelped in pain, the officer began to signal for a medic. But I pleaded with him not to. “I’m fine, I just fell, I’ll be OK once I get to the bathroom.”

Sitting there, in that small restroom, in some travel agency in Little China, in this city of Chicago, hundreds of miles from home, alone. But then a funny thing happened. For the first time since I’d gotten sick, I thought about the three people whose names were ironed on the front of my jersey. I thought about how many times, in their last months on earth, they must have been so sick from the chemotherapy. How many rushed visits to the bathroom they must have had. I wondered if they had panicked. After all, unlike me, they truly were looking death square in the eye.

All three – Michael McLendon, Jim Arthur, and Janet Elser – fought bravely and in a way that is probably still difficult for me to understated. On some level, I felt ashamed and weak to be so panic-stricken and terrified. After all, I am a grown man, a husband, and a father, right? I couldn’t help but begin to feel that this was a test. I walked out of that travel agency with renewed courage and a real sense of purpose.

I might just wind up in the medical tent. But dammit, if I do, it’ll be because they had to pick my big, collapsed, sweaty, dehydrated carcass off of the pavement. I was going to keep going. As much as I knew that the people who had supported me in this fundraising effort would understand if I had to drop out, I knew that I couldn’t…and that I wouldn't.

So, 86 degrees, heat index in the 90’s, not a bit of shade, sun pounding off the pavement, stomach cramping with every step…22 miles down, four to go.

Just keep walking. Keep clutching that bottle. Listen to the cheers of support from total strangers. They are on your side. They do care. Just ride that panic like a wave. Close your eyes, think of the heavens, picture the faces of all those that you love, smiling down on you. Think of the prayers coming your way from all over. Feel that. And tell the fear to go to hell.

Mile 23 approaches. And so does another low point. As nausea begins to come in waves, I can’t decide if I’m hungry, or sick, or both. I grab a handful of pretzels from a stranger’s bag. Seemed like a good idea, until I put one in my mouth. My mouth was so dry that I wasn’t able to chew. I almost heaved. I took a few sips from the dented water bottle. I still almost heaved. My stomach was having no more. Another visit to the luxurious portable bathroom facilities.

As I left the station, I considered – perhaps more strongly than at any other time – cashing it in and heading for the medical tent. Panic had actually stopped speaking. And I just had to ask myself “Are you being insane?"

Yes, totally insane…and totally determined.

Three miles to go. That’s just a 5-K. Hell, I could do that in my sleep. One foot in front of the other. Fortunately, my stomach calmed – no more mad dashes.

I wish I could explain the range of emotions I went through as my body teetered on the edge, half-stumbling, half-walking for the hour that it took me to manage those last three miles.

I don’t know if God works in a way that allows those who have passed on to lean down and touch us, to help us along when we’re weak. I don’t know if that’s a silly, childish fantasy designed to assuage us in moments of great need, of great fear. But I do know that I saw the faces of Michael, Jim and Janet every time I closed my eyes. I saw the face of my mother who has long passed. Of my friend Brent who passed from cancer. And I know that seeing those faces gave me strength and a feeling of purposefulness, of resolve, that kept me on my feet and that brought tears of joy to my eyes when I crossed the finish line.

That’s God enough for me.

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